Halloween costumes unmask cultural stereotypes

Negative depictions of minorities aren’t limited to this season; 'racist ragers' a growing trend on campuses

A movement led by students at Ohio University aims to shed light on costumes that offend.
Leah Woodruff

On college campuses and off, civil rights groups are trying to raise awareness of the insensitivity of both revelers and retailers who might choose Halloween costumes that range from a taco wearing a sombrero to "Pocahottie," a sexually suggestive Native American woman.

Just as alarming, the costumes aren't limited to the end of October. A growing trend of "racist ragers," parties that students attend in costume as ethnic or racial stereotypes, has school officials — and other students — increasingly concerned.

Christina Gonzales, dean of students at the University of Colorado Boulder, sent a letter to students last Thursday encouraging them to "celebrate" diversity on Halloween by refraining from "inaccurate and hurtful portrayals of other peoples’ cultures in the CU community."

Her letter is part of a growing movement led by Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS), a student group at Ohio University that aims to "facilitate discussion about diversity and all isms."

STARS does this by hosting workshops and teach-ins on tolerance and respect. But its annual "We’re a Culture, Not a Costume" poster campaign is what has propelled it to Internet fame and inspired other universities, like CU, to follow suit.

A STARS poster for 2013.
Leah Woodruff/Jennifer Lee

The posters, which have gone viral every year since 2011, depict annoyed-looking 20-somethings next to images of costumes that stereotype their cultures. They're accompanied by messages that challenge students to consider the consequences of wearing such costumes.

Paris Aaron, an OU junior and STARS' vice president, says the campaign was inspired by the rising popularity of race-themed parties on university campuses.

"Just as there were ugly-sweater parties for Christmas, they would have race-based parties where you’d come dressed up as a black person or an Asian nerd or stereotypes that other cultures would, of course, find offensive," he explained.

In fact, racist ragers are one of many "hurtful" incidents that Gonzales cited in her letter to CU’s student body.

"The CU-Boulder community has in the past witnessed and been impacted by people who dressed in costumes that included blackface or sombreros/serapes; people have also chosen costumes that portray particular cultural identities as overly sexualized, such as geishas, 'squaws,' or stereotypical, such as cowboys and Indians," she wrote.

"Additionally, some students have also hosted offensively-themed parties that reinforce negative representations of cultures as being associated with poverty ('ghetto' or 'white trash/hillbilly'), or with crime or sex work."

Students of Pennsylvania State UniversityDuke University and Dartmouth College, among others, have staged similar parties, raising ire among Asian-, Mexican- and African-Americans on campus.

So prevalent have the offensive parties become that some schools, like the University of Minnesota, have taken proactive measures to curb them.

Earlier this month, Vice President of Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young sent a joint email to UM students to remind them that the coming holiday was not a free pass to be culturally insensitive.

"Halloween is just one occasion on a broad continuum where we all benefit from acting with an understanding of the concepts of diversity, inclusion, and respect," they wrote.

That’s precisely the message that civil rights groups want educators to send.

'Not just fun and games'

Ling Woo Liu, director of strategic communications at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said minority communities contend with negative stereotypes not just on Halloween but all year round.

She pointed to recent offenses in pop culture to illustrate how Asian-Americans are routinely lampooned — including Ashton Kutcher’s appearance in "brown face" to play the role of a Bollywood producer in a Popchips commercial, and Ken Jeong’s portrayal of the emasculated Mr. Chow in the movie "The Hangover."

"It’s not just fun and games, and folks reacting because they want to be politically correct," Liu said. "There’s actually real harm that can come out of these jokes."

The characters, she said, accentuate Asian-Americans' otherness, and reinforce stereotypes that they’re "foreign and don’t belong." Over time, that can lead to "the idea that they’re not trustworthy."

Distrust, she noted, is what led to the U.S.'s internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II — an event many in the U.S. still view today as a stain on the country’s history.

Arab- and Muslim Americans fear they’re headed in a similar direction, said Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

"Halloween or TV, we’re only ever portrayed as the three B’s: bombers, billionaires or belly dancers," he said. "But we’re more than just somebody whaling a sword or riding a camel. We have a rich history that we’re proud of."

Ayoub believes that television shows like "24" and "Homeland," which feature Middle Eastern antagonists, "fuel misconceptions that all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists," and lend credence to "unconstitutional government programs that employ surveillance and racial profiling."

The compound effects of these negative stereotypes can lead to hate crimes, he said.

'Understand the context'

That’s the concern that Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, had when he wrote to retailers Walmart, Rite Aid, Amazon and Fun World in September, asking them to stop selling a turban costume modeled on a man wearing a fake beard and dressed in a camouflage jacket like Osama bin Laden.

"This item insults those who lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, insults American soldiers injured or killed in pursuit of Al Qaeda, and perpetuates negative stereotypes about turbans and beards that have led to violence and discrimination against Sikhs and other minorities," he wrote.

To their credit, all but Fun World promptly agreed to stop selling the offending costume. But the positive response was hardly a policy change. Other offensive costumes are still being sold.

Singh said that anyone who thinks the Sikh Coalition’s letter was an overreaction "should try to understand the context in which we made the request."

Since the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, American Sikhs have faced increasing harassment and violence by individuals who don’t understand who they are or what they represent.

On Aug. 5, 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page killed six members of the faith and wounded four others when he opened fire in a temple in Oak Creek, Wis. More recently, on Sept. 21, Columbia University professor Prabhjot Singh was savagely beaten by a mob that yelled "get Osama" and "terrorist" as they descended upon him.

While some rights groups are wary to draw a direct correlation between stereotypes in pop culture and hate crimes, many contend that the link — even if somewhat ambiguous — is there.

In a sign of the times, the Justice Department announced in August it would start keeping track of hate crimes targeting Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs and Buddhists, among other minorities.

That’s a good start, rights groups say, but merely counting hate crimes isn’t enough. What’s needed is diversity in education.

Transcending stereotypes

"In schools, you’re never taught about the true history of this country," said Ray Ramirez, spokesman for the Native American Rights Fund. "You’re never taught about the tribes that existed prior to European conquest. You never hear about the tribes that exist today."

He said that if students were taught about Native American culture, they wouldn’t "disrespect" it by wearing sacred headdresses for Halloween, or project "hostility" toward assertions that names of popular sports teams, like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians, are racist.

Other rights groups agree that diversity education, like STARS’ poster campaign, is key to countering dangerous stereotypes, and have even taken steps of their own to educate teachers on how to address issues of multiculturalism in classrooms.

The Anti-Defamation League, for example, has developed free lesson plans that aim to curb anti-Semitism by helping teachers "integrate multicultural, anti-bias, and social justice themes into their curricula."

However, minority groups say that’s not the only type of diversity needed in education.

Khaled Beydoun, critical race studies fellow at the UCLA School of Law, said that initiatives teaching diversity are "well intended," but that their success is hampered by the "diminished" presence of minorities on university campuses.

"The absence of these students from the spaces of learning eliminates the prospect of humanizing 'people of color,' and leaves white students to subscribe to racial caricatures ubiquitous in history texts, music, film and the like," he said.

To that end, civil rights groups like the NAACP and National Council of La Raza have launched programs to fight for equitable opportunities in education and to build the capacity of black and Latino youth to succeed in classrooms.

The objective, as the NAACP puts it, is to eliminate "education-related racial and ethnic disparities" so that minority students can transcend stereotypes. 

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